Not deferential enough: Rusticating

Posted Wednesday, August 3, 2011 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Rusticating

by Gina Hamilton

We drove up to Bar Harbor last Wednesday to rusticate for a couple of days in a cottage on Route 3, one of the Hanscom Cottages.  They had been recommended by a friend, and they are very dog-friendly. We were taking Rudie the Dog for a little vacation, so they fit the bill perfectly. We had a grand time — we went to the beach, picnicked, kayaked, had tea on the lawn at Jordan Pond, played miniature golf, and bought T-shirts for ourselves and our son and heir, and a rawhide chew for Rudie at Bark Harbor. And then we went home, just a little poorer in purse but richer in spirit.

Back in the day, Mount Desert Island was a playground for the very rich, with a few dozen "cottages" of 30 rooms or more. A few families and their friends spent a few months in these monsters; then they lay quietly empty for months throughout the entire winter.  A few small villages on the island provided staff for the huge cottages in the summer, and provisioning. In the off-season, the ordinary people of Bar Harbor and Southwest Harbor and the other villages made their livings in other ways: fishing, ice-harvesting, cranberry farming, buttering, and so on.

(Our cottage had one bedroom and a bathroom, and a kitchenette. And it was enough.)

In October of 1947, a huge fire devastated Mount Desert Island, taking out many of the summer cottages, burning much of Acadia National Park, and killing just a few people as the year-round residents of Bar Harbor and the other villages fled the flames by road or boat. 

Few of the stately summer cottages were rebuilt ... the time had passed when the extremely well-to-do could afford to maintain large residences to use for only a month or two, and the ease of air travel meant they could spend holidays anywhere in the world, easily. The war had changed a lot, too. Most of the young men returning home wanted to build their own homes and get married and have kids, or to go to college and have a different life than their parents and grandparents had. A fair number of these folks bought some of the burned-out land on Mount Desert and built holiday cottages for the rest of us.

And Mount Desert Island would never be the same.

Instead of a few thousand annual visitors, Mount Desert and Acadia National Park receive about 2 million visitors each year now, and many of those folks need a place to stay, a place to have lunch and dinner, a place to bring the kids to play, a boat to get out on the water to visit the islands or spot whales or get the exhilaration of a fast sail, and yes, a huge and gentle national park in which to hike or sightsee or kayak or bike or ride horses.

The sleepy villages of Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and Northeast Harbor grew to accommodate these summer visitors in their millions. Small towns just off the island grew up too, creating new economies from Trenton and Ellsworth all the way to Calais.

The Mount Desert experience, pre-1947 and post-1947, is a microcosm of economic growth, and it didn't happen by cutting the taxes of the handful of wealthy rusticators and hoping the money trickled down to the locals. While the wealthy played a part — many of them donated land to establish the park itself (and received hefty tax breaks for doing so) — the explosive economic growth of the Island's economy happened because a fire wiped out most of those cottages, clearing the way for a new economy, based firmly in the rising middle class.

Pardon me, but I think there's an object lesson here.

We already know that small businesses drive the nation's economy, more so than large corporations do. Each of the owners of small hotels or restaurants or campgrounds or T-shirt shops, when banded together, provide a lot more to the local economy in terms of tax base, job creation and good-will than the companies that everyone frets about when they threaten to leave, prompting flurries of activity designed to keep them in place.

Maybe, just maybe, we should spend a little more ... heck, a lot more ... energy trying to bolster our middle-class small businesses?

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